It’s not uncommon for people to have issues with trips to the dentist. Even as adults many people have a hard time. For many adults these issues have been with them since childhood which makes it even more difficult trying to figure out how to assist your own children with their dental anxiety. Knowing this, we thought we’d poll a number of experienced dentists on how to help deal with dental anxiety in children.
Advice from Dr. Eugene Gamble
Start attending the dentist early: Try to start attending the dentist as soon as teeth come through. This way the child builds up their dental experiences in an unforced way. Knowing there is no real dental work to be done also helps the parents as they tend to transfer their own apprehensions to their children. The worst thing to do is waiting until there is a problem (toothache or a dental trauma). If you do you risk embedding a fear as you introduce a new environment to a traumatized child in pain. You risk the child associating the traumatic experience to the dentist and creating serious issues.
Gradually desensitize the children: When attending, try to coax them to sit on the dental chair on their own. if this won’t happen then have a parent/guardian sit to demonstrate and then have the child sit on the parents lap. over the course of other visits they will eventually build up their confidence.
Watch your language: Children are extremely perceptive and will know that the parent believes something is not quite right by their unusual behavior and language. Don’t say things like it’s not going to hurt as automatically the child will question why would someone say that!
Don’t pressure the child: If you don’t see perceived progress (the child won’t open their mouth, won’t sit in the chair etc.) don’t feel the need to put even more pressure on the child in an already stressful situation. Think of the visit as a stepping stone to the next visit. The dentist is there to help the process so take the cues from them.
Modeling: Let the child watch you have a checkup or cleaning. Or better yet, let them watch a sibling who is happy to comply with the dentist. This allows them to see there is no big challenge. You may not get the response you’re looking for that visit but it’s a work in progress.
Which parent/guardian: Although difficult, sometimes it is best to have the parent or guardian who doesn’t expect a problem. Too often I’ve seen the adult be more afraid than the child initially and they transfer the anxiety by their actions and behavior.
Get recommendations: Not all dentists have the required empathy for dealing with children (including some pediatric dentists). Ask around and see who comes recommended by other parents or guardians.
Overall, the advice would be to take the dental visits slowly and don’t get too worried about what is accomplished. If you start early in a slow and deliberate manner you’ll have no problems by the time checkups become more important.
Advice from Dr. Sandra J. Eleczko
Kids are special patients. Gaining their trust is so important.
Many adults with dental apprehensions have had bad experiences as a child and this stays with them. Kids will pick up on the anxiety of their parents, even if the parent does not voice their apprehensions directly. I still have parents that will say things like if you don’t behave, she will give you the needle and at that point we have a hard time gaining the trust of the child.
We recommend that the parent, caregiver, with the most positive feeling about dental care bring the child. Many times it helps when a parent brings a child to one of their dental cleaning appointments, assuming that they have healthy mouths and no bleeding during the cleaning, so the child can be introduced to the office, maybe get a ride in the chair, and have a non-traumatic introduction to us. We have a general dental practice in a small town so this works well in our office.
How a parent teaches their child about the dentist and the words that they use are so very important. We tell the parents not to say Shot when talking about getting a child numb. WE use word like sleepy juice, numbing gel, tickling the teeth, and other non-threatening words.
We spend time with the child using show tell, do. WE always tell the child the truth about what to expect so that there are no surprises and the trust is not broken.
Kids can be a fun part of the day, but sometimes they can ruin the day for us and other patients in the office.
Advice from Dr. Kaveh Ghaboussi
The best tips for parents are to not pass on their fears or dislikes. Children are super perceptive on how their parent is feeling and will feed off of that energy. It’s really important that parents feel comfortable with the dentist too. Kids typically are much better behaved if their parents don’t sit in the room with them. As a mom myself, my kids
typically are much more respectful and listen better if I’m not there trying to control their behavior. If your child is really anxious, we suggest visiting first to tour. This way they can be familiar with the office, team, noises, sights, smells. If your child is old enough have them write and draw out the steps for example: 1) drive to office 2) check in at desk 3) go back to treatment chair 4) Relax and wait for dentist/hygienist 5) Discuss suction (Mr. Thirsty), water, polishing etc.
We suggest a child’s first visit by age one. If kids get used to coming early and have a positive experience then they typically will have be a lifetime fan of the dentist.
A kind dentist will take the time to explain what is going to happen so the patient knows they have control. A good dental office and team will take the time to understand and respect the person’s fears to help them overcome them. At our office we use a lot of distraction. We use breathing exercises, TV or even singing silly songs if needed. Some
patients respond well to nitrous oxide to help them zone out. Most of the time kids just need to time to be kids and ask questions. Getting your teeth worked on is super invasive and awkward for everyone and many of us need extra time sometimes.
Advice from Dr. Louis Siegelman
To prepare a child for their first visit emphasize the positive aspects of dental visits, i.e., fresh breath and clean teeth. It’s important to make it a positive experience; make it fun! Rewards are a great way to motivate a child.
It is extremely important not to relate a parent’s prior negative experiences. If a parent has any dental anxiety, they should be cautious when they speak of the dentist not to pass their fear down to the child. Never use force or threats because they can have long-lasting negative effects.
One of the most important things a dentist can do is use positive reinforcement. Start with short easy visits, especially if there is nothing serious going on like pain or swelling. It’s alright if at the first visit all you do is talk because you can build up to longer appointments. This will enable visits and the child will develop into a great patient. In addition, a dentist should recognize the instinctive things that can make a child apprehensive. Minimalize the visualization of any scary objects; this could be a metal instrument. Children are individuals and may have different reactions to different to stimuli such as taste, smells or sounds. A dentist should listen and understand the patients’ individual needs.
If a child has severe dental anxiety it’s important to make sure you find the right dental practice. An office that understands dental anxiety, prioritizes patient comfort and utilizes modern technology to help a child overcome their anxiety. One great example of modern dental technology is the Carivu. This compact device assists in the detection of cavities and cracks and is especially helpful with children that have difficulty with X-rays. It works by using a trans illumination technology that makes the enamel appear transparent. Another suggestion is to allow the child to bring a security blanket or stuffed animal to the appointment.